Compromising with Agency Turf

Daniel Krause added his two cents to the politicals vs. technicals issue; his contention is that technical advocates are perfectionists and refuse to compromise. Writing about the Transbay Terminal design, which is slightly less wretched than originally planned but still severely constrains Caltrain capacity into downtown San Francisco, he says,

-It seems [technicals] have a difficulty in accepting design compromises. The Transbay Terminal situation is a good example. Even though the turning radius has been significantly widened, it is still tighter than they like, so the drumbeat continues about how bad and non-function the Transbay Terminal will be, even though (in my opinion) a reasonable level of service will now be accommodated within the terminal for both Caltrain and HSR.

-Things they find as deal-breakers in terms of design, are not deal-breakers to the general public. The public just wants a comfortable and reasonably fast way to get around. For example, they will not be bothered if trains go a little slower into the Transbay terminal because the turning radius is not ideal. They will still be perfectly happy to arrive into the heart of downtown SF despite the ongoing debate in the blogosphere.

The telltale sign that something is wrong is that there’s nobody to compromise with on this matter. Compromises based on community needs happen all the time. In fact one of my future projects for this blog is to propose an elevated alignment in Providence from the East Side Rail Tunnel to downtown, and this involves a series of compromises between cost, noise, takings, and speed. The problem is that the compromises leading to the Transbay design, or, worse, the design of San Jose Diridon, are not based on any local needs; they’re based on the needs of agencies that won’t cooperate. The same is true of the various caverns built or proposed in New York, and Harold Interlocking.

Although I’ve voiced the view that experts should be thought as one more constituency with its own special knowledge (namely, best industry practices), they should not be viewed as a constituency with its own interests. They should serve the public, not the reverse. And the public should pressure them to come up with designs that maximize passenger convenience.

In the case of Transbay specifically, the agency turf is not just leading to high cost. The worst aspect of it is that most peak Caltrain trains will not be able to serve Transbay, but instead have to terminate at the present 4th and King terminal, separated from the CBD by a kilometer and a pedestrian-hostile freeway connector. Passengers will be forced to transfer to the Central Subway, a very slow and low-capacity line that isn’t expected to get much more ridership than the buses it’s replacing.

Although it’s tempting to view passengers as automatons who only care about glossy trains, the reality is that the little details matter.  If the area around a station isn’t walkable, people will not walk to it. If the timetable is too inscrutable, or schedule reliability is poor, or the trains squeal, passengers will be more likely to look for alternatives. Of course laypeople may not be able to tell exactly what is wrong – they may complain that transferring is horrible but not know that transfers could be made cross-platform and timed, or they may complain about paying a series of fares but not know that fare unions exist – but they can tell something is wrong. Ordinary people are much less stupid than the elites think they are. The best argument against democracy may be five minutes’ conversation with the average voter, but the best argument for democracy is five minutes’ conversation with the average member of the elite.

I for one was not born hostile to American transit agencies. I became this way after, first, riding Amtrak; and second, stumbling across a cost per km figure for Tokyo subways that was much lower than the equivalent New York figure, eventually leading to my interest in comparative costs. And judging by the deteriorating position of HSR in the polls in California, the design incompetence is having a similar effect on many others.


  1. Caelestor

    I think the county-state-federal division has probably led to this agency turf. I mean, look at NYC, which clearly dominates the tri-state area. In an ideal world, there should be only one commuter rail agency there (PATH is a more interesting agency.) The fact that NJ Transit and LIRR must terminate at Penn Station reduces effective capacity and destroys the ability to travel from Long Island into New Jersey quickly and conveniently.

    Another example: MBTA offers terrible bihourly service from Boston to Providence. One possible solution is to have MBTA tickets be accepted by Amtrak so frequency can be increased (right now it’s way too expensive to ride Amtrak to MBTA), but instead there’s this ridiculous situation where MBTA riders have to head to the cafe to get their tickets.

    • anonymouse

      NJ Transit and LIRR must terminate in Penn Station because neither has trains capable of using the other network’s power. And note that this was the case even during the time when the LIRR was owned by the PRR, and the PRR operated electric commuter services to New Jersey, roughly between the 30s and the 60s. There was even some through service for long distance trains, but never for the commuters.

      • Alon Levy

        Sure, but the modifications aren’t very difficult, especially in catenary territory. A single-voltage loco is just a multi-voltage loco with a few wires missing. Using a lower frequency requires a bigger transformer, but the ALP-46s’ issue is the other direction, i.e. converting from 11 kV 25 Hz to 12 kV 60 Hz. On top of that, changing the voltage is not terribly expensive. But they’ve made no plans to do anything that would fix the voltage gap.

        • anonymouse

          There’s no issue with running through between the various AC territories, and indeed Metro North already runs NJT trains from New Haven to Secaucus, with ALP-46s. But it’s not even an inter-agency turf war issue: NJT’s MUs have tap changers that can switch between 11kV and 25kV, but they’re manual and they never made the (relatively minor, from what I hear) modifications to make them automatic, so NJT can’t run half of its trains through from one half of its territory to the other half.

          • Alon Levy

            The point here is that those modifications are trivial and if the agencies were interested in cooperating (organization), they’d spend the trivial amounts of money on them (barely even electronics). It’s not like, say, the M7s, which I’m pretty sure cannot be easily modified to run on high-voltage AC power.

          • Adirondacker12800

            MetroNorth runs trains from New Haven to Penn Station where a NJTransit crew takes over and runs it as a local to Trenton. Or on the northbound trip NJTransit runs the Trenton local to Penn Station where a Metro North crew takes over and runs it to New Haven.

    • Adirondacker12800

      The fact that NJ Transit and LIRR must terminate at Penn Station reduces effective capacity

      Does it? There’s four tunnels and 21 platforms. Just because a train arrived on track 1 that doesn’t stop a train from arriving on track 2, or track 3. Train arrives from the east on track 1 while a train from the west arrives on track 2 doesn’t stop trains from arriving and departing on tracks 3 through 21. Orchestrate this all so there are 50 or 60 trains arriving through the tunnels each hour and the trains sit at the platform for a bit. Doesn’t really matter much if the train that arrived from the east sits, and then departs for the east compared to departing to the west. Would if it was a four track subway station with two island platforms but it’s not.

      destroys the ability to travel from Long Island into New Jersey quickly and conveniently.

      You do realize that there are multiple lines radiating out from Penn Station? Arrange it all so the Trenton trains go to Port Washington and Suffern trains go to Long Beach it makes a trip from Rahway to Flushing much more convenient but doesn’t do anything at all for a trip from Rahway to Jamaica. Or a trip from Cedarhurst to South Orange. You then get the joy and pleasure of problems at Jamaica affecting service all over New Jersey in addition to affecting most of Long Island. Or problems at Secaucus affecting service all over Long Island. What the hell, throw in Metro North too and then problems in New Rochelle can make trains late in Ramsey. Or problems in Yonkers can make them late in Floral Park.

      • anonymouse

        It does matter if a train arriving from the east departs to the east or west, because if trains keep arriving from the west, because sooner or later, a train that arrived from the west and is departing back to the west will have to cross the path of another train arriving from the west. This reduces capacity. How much it does so depends on the station layout and just how many trains we’re talking about.

        • Adirondacker12800

          While trains are arriving and departing from the west they are also arriving and departing from the east. The trains running through east to west or west to east eat up just as much time in the interlockings as would trains that turn around in the station.

          • anonymouse

            Trains running through don’t ever have to cross paths. Eastbound trains stay strictly to the south of westbound trains. Trains terminating sooner or later will, unless you have flyovers. An eastbound track that terminated on Track 1 and is pulling out westbound will necessarily cross the path of any eastbound train to any other track. It’s just basic geometry.

          • Adirondacker12800

            They don’t in two track stations. Things get a little bit more complex in stations with 20 tracks.

          • anonymouse

            Things don’t get that much more complex in 20-track stations. You use the tracks to overlap dwell times, and you can switch some tracks from eastbound to westbound depending on time of day, but for the peak hour, if you have all trains running through, you can pretty much divide the station up into eastbound and westbound groups of tracks, with no conflicts. Even in NY Penn, for the most part, if you set it up with NJT running through to the south pair of East River tunnels and LIRR running through from the West Side Yard to the north pair of East River tunnels. The only things that get in the way are the Empire trains and the stub tracks (1-4).

          • Alon Levy

            That, and the NEC tracks, which only connect to the northern tunnels in a conflict-free fashion (though, once ESA opens, it’s going to be a minor issue).

          • Adirondacker12800

            And after a while all the trains are in Long Island and some of them have to come back. Or after a while all of the trains are in New Jersey and the West Side Yards and some of them have to come back. Silly passengers have this habit of wanting to travel are vaguely random times and will be very upset if trains run unidirectionally most hours of the day. Which means there will be conflicts getting in and out of the tunnels.

          • anonymouse

            Adirondacker, the idea is that with through-running, the conflicts will then be in places like Port Washington and Ronkonkoma and Dover and Long Branch that are less congested than NY Penn.

          • Eric

            Not every through-running train has to run to the opposite end of the metropolitan area. If NJT trains continued just from NY Penn to Jamaica, congestion at NY Penn would be relieved, and little time would be wasted running empty trains in the “wrong” direction. (Incidentally, access to JFK from the west would be much improved as well.) A similar arrangement would work by continuing LIRR trains to Secaucus and/or Newark.

          • Alon Levy

            That, and there’s a nontrivial number of people who commute from east of Manhattan to Newark or from west of Manhattan to Jamaica.

          • jim

            One wants Newark, not Secaucus. There’s PATH connections at Newark. Didn’t Goldman move its back office to Jersey City?

          • Adirondacker12800

            Running the train from Suffern to Mineola doesn’t do much good for someone who lives in East Orange and works in Jamaica or someone who lives in St Albans and works in Newark, If any of them have to get to Jersey City they are just as screwed as they are now even with every train flitting lightly through Penn Station.

    • jim harper

      Federalizing the process more would help. Engineers would still draw their rhumb-line plans and there would and should still be political adjustments, but the quarreling would be conducted in a unified proceeding. A few procedural tweaks in the review process, and these quarrels could be expedited. You might think that the FRA are troglodytes,–its an occupational hazard of railroading– but that can be pretty easily fixed. There are successful and cost effective transportation projects–the dirt cheap Tillman bridge comes to mind–so its possible, and it ought not depend on the talent of one or two guys at the top of the project.

    • Caelestor

      Another example of the artificial state-separation agency is SEPTA and NJ Transit. Once SEPTA returns to competency, the Trenton & NE Corridor lines should really be merged, since Philadelphia is a major destination and is actually closer to paces in S. New Jersey than NYC.

      A huge issue with transit right now is that an agency carves out a domain for itself and won’t let other operators in. It’s decent for facilitating transportation within the governed region (i.e. within a state), but terrible for intraregion transportation. I know Amtrak’s suposed to cover the intraregion transportation, but let’s face it, they do an inadequate job.

  2. Stephen Smith

    The interesting thing about agency turf is that if I had lived in the 1950s and were around when they were debating what to do with mass transit, I would have probably thought that at least nationalization would lead to better coordination, even if I would have opposed it overall. But even that most basic objective doesn’t seem to have been achieved.

    • Alon Levy

      It might have worked better if they’d nationalized everything, not just intercity rail. The separation of intercity and commuter rail agencies exists in few countries other than the US.

      That said, the Greater Amtrak would probably have zero local transit coordination. Metro-North and the LIRR at least let you buy a combined commuter-MetroCard ticket, with two subway swipes; you have to pay extra, but in principle you can do everything on a single paper ticket. I doubt they’d have tried if Amtrak had been in charge.

      • Anon256

        Amtrak in California does give free transfers to AC Transit/VTA on request, and sells BART tickets at a discount in the cafe. They also honour Metrolink tickets between LA and Burbank, and honour monthly passes at all shared Metrolink stations (and on Shore Line East and possibly elsewhere). None of this is very impressive, but it’s about as good as LIRR/MNRR selling you a metrocard with your ticket. In the Northeast, Amtrak generally doesn’t want to offer attractive options for commuters because it would rather be a premium service competing with the airlines – know any airlines that coordinate with local transit?

        Also, last I checked there was not much coordination between Shinkansen or TGV trains and local transit. The Germans are better about this though.

      • Stephen Smith

        But it’s not just intercity and commuter rail that’s not well-coordinated – it’s even inside of agencies. At least NYCT has the excuse of having a different name than LIRR or Metro-North, but what’s SEPTA’s excuse for not even having an underground pedestrian connection between the main line rail terminal at 30th St. and the Market-Frankford line subway station, or having some sort of integrated fare medium for both the regional rail division and the others? If they can’t even coordinate between different divisions within the same agency, I don’t think it matters much which agency commuter rail is lumped together with.

        • Eric

          There is an underground connector at 30th St. station. It has been closed due to crime concerns since (IIRC) a few muggings occurred in it some years ago.

          • Steve S.

            Steve, there was one. It became unsafe. AFAIK it’s now being used as a storage space for the pub that was built around its entrance in 30th Street Station (Bridgewater’s Pub). The second problem has to do with the way infrastructure was laid out around there–there’s an underground service street under 30th Street, which makes the usual solutions impracticable.

            I’ve already talked about this little issue here. In addition, I think SEPTA should terminate its Schuylkill Expressway buses within this complex, say in the space under the upper concourse platforms.

  3. Sascha Claus

    > “Ordinary people are much less stupid than the elites think they are.”
    Even if they were, it wouldn’t matter. It are the “ordinary people” everything is done for. It are the “ordinary people” who will (or won’t) ride the trains. If “ordinary people” don’t see that horrible transferring or paying a series of fares is the best for them™, they won’t use the trains. Which usually isn’t the intended purpose.

  4. BBnet3000

    I dont think that theres anything particularly hostile to pedestrians between 4th/king and the financial district, other than all the wide one-way streets (which are still not even that bad to cross in SOMA compared to say, Oakland). Its just way to far to walk on a daily basis as part of a commute that also involves a train ride from the Peninsula. Its quite bikeable, but theres already bike capacity issues on Caltrain.

    If its true that the majority of trains wouldnt be able to go to the Transbay terminal, thats a deal breaker to me. People want to go downtown. SOMA is growing and im sure theres decent ridership for 4th/King, but the chance to grow ridership by accessing downtown is huge.

    • Adirondacker12800

      There’s this thing called Muni you may have heard about that can also be used to get around in San Francisco.

      • anonymouse

        Yes. Muni is real handy for getting around San Francisco, specifically from anywhere in the city to Market Street. If you’re going anywhere else, like the Caltrain station, you’re going to have to transfer. If you’re going from somewhere in SF to somewhere along the Caltrain line, that means you take a bus to Market Street, transfer to another bus (which might be late) to get to the train station (where, because the bus is late, you might have missed your train) then take the train to somewhere further south, then take a connecting bus or shuttle (which you might have missed since you missed your train) to work. The extension to Transbay eliminates a step in the process by providing a more or less direct transfer from the Market Street route, making the trip both faster and more reliable.

    • RIchard Mlynarik

      Fatalities are certain at the corner of Fourth and King. The City of SF and the SF MTA will be (or ought to be) liable.

      The entire setup is about as pedestrian-hostile, transit-hostile and human-hostile as it was possible to engineer.

      Another triumph.

      • anonymouse

        What street view doesn’t show is just how long the light cycles are, or how many light cycles the Muni trains have to wait to cross. Note that both stations are on the far side of the crossing, meaning that you can (and sooner or later will) miss your Caltrain because the Muni train was stuck at the light. Also, even once the Central Subway is in operation, the station for it will still be on the south side of King, meaning pedestrians will have to wait at the light to walk across, then wait at the light again when they’re on the train, only to have it go right by the station’s front door.

    • Marc

      > Its just way to far to walk on a daily basis as part of a commute that also
      > involves a train ride from the Peninsula. Its quite bikeable, but theres
      > already bike capacity issues on Caltrain.

      I live in Oakland and commute to Stanford 3 or 4 days/week. I take a bus to the (now temporary) Transbay terminal, a brisk 20 minute (~1.2 mile) walk to 4th & King, then the train (Stanford provides a pass) to Palo Alto. If need be, I could take Muni light rail and cut the walk to 2 blocks, or take it to Embarcadero station for BART. The walk from 4th & King to Powell St. BART can easily be done in under 15 minutes…

      • Caelestor

        If only everyone was willing to walk about 1.2 miles and make 2 transfers like you do.

        • Andrew in Ezo

          Welcome to the reality of public transportation users in the Bay Area, who are always faced with that extra mile or (inconvenient) transfer- many just give up and drive.

          • Caelestor

            Yeah, as a resident of the Bay Area, I know the sad reality.

        • Marc

          If only everyone was willing to walk about 1.2 miles and make 2 transfers like you do.

          Actually, I have to make 3 transfers (Stanford shuttle from PA station) and walk closer to 1.5 miles, as a Transbay bus does not magically stop in front of my door. With all that, the trip can still be routinely done door to door in just over 2 hours, as compared the drive which takes over an hour during commute times. The transit commute is sufficiently easier on my psyche and wallet to make up for the added time.

          After a while, one notices that there are numerous other people regularly making the Transbay to Caltrain transfer in both directions, on foot, Razor-style scooter, folding bike, skateboard, etc. As for the dangers of crossing at 4th & King, one quickly learns not to step into the street the moment the light changes, but if I’m going to get hit, I’d bet on one of the more lightly traveled intersections with fewer pedestrians.

          And, finally, running Caltrain to the Transbay terminal is no panacea, both the Caltrain and AC Transit Transbay schedules have been dwindling for years. At this point, I have few options left for making the trip mid-day or after 7 PM, with no indication that funding will ever be available to improve the situation. But, if nothing else, we will eventually have a beautiful and expensive new Transbay terminal with an empty basement and infrequent service, the homeless folks will appreciate the upgrade…

    • Nathanael

      Unfortunately the political solutions are going to be different in different places.

      Un-breaking the federal government would be ideal, but I have no idea how to do that; it’s been getting more and more broken since 1980 at least.

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